Words || Gabby Edwards
Ryan Murphy returned to Netflix with a bang with his new miniseries, Hollywood. The show revolves around the lives of a diverse group of hopeful creatives trying to make it big during the Hollywood Golden Age post-WW2. With this premise and all-star cast bringing so much promise, it was hard to see what could possibly go wrong. Alas, I was mistaken. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more conflicted about a show in a long while, so join me on this exploration of the ups and downs of Hollywood.
Don’t get me wrong, the show has a lot of highlights and was overall really entertaining and binge worthy. The cast and their performances were incredible and mixed with the high-quality production design and overall aesthetic of the show, it definitely made it an easy watch.
The themes and issues the show tries to address are quite unique and incredibly important. Representation in Hollywood has been a long-running issue that continues today, and the show starts off by doing a great job at demonstrating the positive impact of representation for both the average viewer and for marginalised creators themselves, who are able to benefit their careers and better use their platform for the greater good. It also attempts to unpack the importance of using whatever privilege or power you have to raise the voices and work of those who aren’t as fortunate.
Beside the show’s cast consisting of multiple people of colour and queer, predominantly gay, characters, there’s representation of older women being unapologetically sexual and discussions on acknowledging the privilege of being white passing when non-white. There are also depictions of sex work, none of which are vilifying for the workers, but simply show how prevalent such activities were within Hollywood elite.
Though, as with most fictional media that tries to create alternate histories, things start to get messy really quickly. Here’s your warning for mild spoilers ahead. The show’s main problem comes with simply wishing away all the struggles that existed for marginalised groups at the time which disrespects the hard-work and accomplishments of actual trailblazers. Instead of overcoming boundaries, as real-life marginalised creators have to do, each obstacle seemed to fall away easily, chance allowing them to succeed at the end of the day.
For example, a group of powerful white studio executives happen to support their film ‘Meg’, which allows it to be greenlit, made and distributed just as the creators wanted it. This was obviously not an opportunity many had back in the day, making it hard to stay connected to the characters and their journeys. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to escape to the fantasy the show offers. Though, to completely applaud it without recognising the recklessness of oversimplifying the problems at the time is where I take issue.
The show’s final episode ends with the 1948 Academy Awards in which plenty of our main cast of characters take home awards, portraying acceptance by this mainstream establishment as the penultimate accomplishment for these creators. While this episode definitely brought some empowering moments, the achievements felt empty in comparison to reality. For example, while Hollywood depicts the first black gay man winning an Oscar for writing, in reality, a black man (Jordan Peele) didn’t take home a writing Oscar until 2018. Similarly, the show’s version of Anna May Wong finally wins her Oscar for best supporting actress, whereas Miyoshi Umeki in real life remains the only east Asian actress to win an acting Oscar for her role in Sayonara in 1957. Halle Berry is also the only black woman to take home the Oscar for best actress in 2001, unlike Camille in the show.
Furthermore, it would have been great to have gotten to know the backstories of some of the other characters a little more. The choice to have the series’ most significant character be a white straight man amongst such a diverse cast was an interesting choice. I particularly loved Darren Criss’ character, Raymond, being half-Filipino myself. However, we never get to see his character achieve his goals of better Asian representation after his pitch to cast an Asian woman as the lead of his film is ignored, he never mentions this project again.
Similarly, Laura Harrier’s character, Camille, is a young black actress trying to escape the caricature roles she’s continuously cast in. We unfortunately don’t get to see her history or what drove her to pursue a career in acting in the first place. While it was still easy to root for her, it made it harder to understand her and her motivations on a deeper level. These two characters being just one of two interracial relationships on the show could have also opened new discussions. This is particularly considering the references throughout the show to the Hayes Code, The Motion Picture Production Code that banned the portrayal of interracial relationships in films. Unfortunately, this was an opportunity that was totally missed.
This brings me to possibly one of the worst things I found about the show, the character arc and attempted redemption of Henry Wilson. Henry Wilson was a real talent agent that was infamously known for abusing his power through pressuring his clients into participating in sexual acts. This is explicitly represented in the show, along with a general mistreatment of his clients. Sexual abusers are first and foremost bad people as opposed to people who just had bad things happen to them. We’ll never know if Henry being able to publicly embrace his sexuality would have led to him not abusing his power, but as that wasn’t the case, we should still hold him accountable to his actions.
While I appreciate that the show still drew a line by making sure Rock (one of his most famous clients) didn’t accept Henry’s apology, the repercussions he faced could have been greater. Mainly, he gets to keep his job at the studio and gets the opportunity to produce his own movie, along with finding a boyfriend to support him as he tries to supposedly better himself. Not to mention, the real Henry’s actions likely affected a large number of victims, none of which are even mentioned on the show. For a show that’s supposed to represent a utopian alternative to this time-period, it’s disappointing that a notorious sexual abuser is able to maintain their position of power and face next to no repercussions for their actions.
If there’s one word I’d use to describe this show, it’s ambitious. The concept behind it clearly came from a good and hopeful place, and I commend it on delving into themes that are rarely, if ever, addressed in other mainstream media. Saying that, the final outcome leaves a lot to be desired. I can understand why people fall on both sides of the spectrum in terms of loving and hating this show, though personally I’m definitely somewhere in the middle. While this show was intended to be a limited series, talks of a potential second season has me intrigued to see where exactly they’ll take this show next.